France Takes a Shot at ITunes

By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, March 26, 2006

In the digital-music market, Apple has clobbered every challenger: Creative Labs, Dell, RealNetworks, Rio, Samsung -- even Microsoft and Sony. But can Apple overcome the French government too?

Last week, France's National Assembly passed an authors'-rights bill that would, among other things, require music-download stores such as Apple's iTunes to open their proprietary "digital rights management" copy-control software to users and competitors.

The idea behind that provision of this bill, which must still be approved by France's Senate, is to ensure that a music download can be played on any device, not just one allowed by the seller of that file.

That's how things work in the realm of audio CDs, but the download market -- make that, the part of it selling music released by major record labels -- hasn't worked that way so far. The major labels have insisted that their songs be secured against piracy with "digital rights management" software.

No industry-wide standard has emerged, so computer companies have pushed their own proprietary formats. And none has done this better than Apple. A crushing majority of the songs sold online -- over 70 percent in most estimates -- have been bought at Apple's iTunes Music Store and are protected by Apple's FairPlay software.

So-called DRM has a bad reputation for blocking legal uses, but FairPlay generally lives up to its name. It imposes minimal restrictions on your use of an iTunes download (for instance, you can't play it on more than five computers at once) and stays out of the way otherwise. You might not even notice its existence -- as long as you use Apple hardware or software.

Because Apple hasn't licensed FairPlay to any other company, you can only play an iTunes download in Apple's iTunes or QuickTime programs. You can only listen to that file on the go by putting it on an Apple iPod or one of the few cellphones with a version of iTunes.

Conversely, songs wrapped in another company's DRM don't work in Apple's software.

You got a problem with that?

Maybe not. As long as Apple continues to own the markets for music downloads, music-management software and digital-music players, you can argue that nobody's harmed by this situation.

Plus, you can burn a copy-restricted download to an audio CD, then copy that CD's music right back to the computer in an open, unrestricted format. All the big music-download stores allow this untidy workaround -- one I go through every time a non-iTunes site offers me a few free downloads in a futile effort to gain some traction in the market.

But as good as iTunes and the iPod are, they don't come close to covering the spectrum of possible music-listening choices.

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